Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (Canongate 2008)

David Simon's superlative police procedural book is given a reprint by the UK's coolest publisher in the wake of the Wire's current cult status as must-have boxsets. Thanks to Charlie Brooker, the UK is now going ga-ga for the intensely intricate Wire, and now thanks to Canongate, no stranger to starting cults of their own, has handily brought the book out that started it all off, and quite kindly made the cover similar to the cover of the season 1 Wire boxset. They have done the same with The Corner, Simon's other book that directly spawned The Wire, which Canongate promise to reprint in April 2009. Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets actually became Simon's first attempt at TV, as Homicide: Life on the Streets, starring Richard Belzer, Yaphet Kotto and an enigmatic Andre Braugher.

The book, originally released in 1991 and not feeling dated in the slightest, follows Simon shadowing each unit with the Homicide department of Baltimore's busy police department. Simon is able to watch over the shoulders of the police as they go about investigating the multitude of murders occuring every hour on the Baltimore streets, most related to the decaying city's drug trade, others 'stone-cold whodunnits'. Simon is unafraid to talk in jargon and banter but is careful to explain all the terms. His writing style is clear and concise, unfaltering in its journalist's eye, taking in everything like an ink-filled sponge. Each aspect of the Homicide departments laws, codes, morals, procedures and investigative methods are meticulously documented for the reader. Despite the oodles of detail and character study, it never gets boring, zipping along at a quick pace, bouncing between ongoing cases, showing the real-life processes of solving murders, from waiting for lab-reports to the laborious paper-filling to the daylong interviews with suspects and endless canvassing of endless scenes. The amazing bits are where you can see stories and characters that have ended up in Simon's shows. You suddenly find yourself confronted with characters' real-life versions and you start to realise just how close-to-the-truth Simon's spell-binding TV is. Sergeant Jay Landsman is exactly as he is in real life, masking his jadedness in humour and ribbing. McLarney feels like an incarnation of McNulty, committed, better than everyone else, slight alcohol dependency. Murders that haunt the detectives in real life have haunted their fictional counterparts on Homicide: Life on the Streets. Write what you know, they say, and Simon knows police procedure.

The book is bigger than the police it is close to. The book is about the death of an American city, where the politicians play power-games with each other, their eyes on the Senate, using the decaying city as a political stepping-stone, moving their pawn-police around imaginary boards on their every whim. Meanwhile the ghettoes of Baltimore implode with drugs, rival gangs and lack of education, father-figures and a way out. There's a Baltimore claustrophobia lurking on each street corner, giving you the impression that these obsessed detectives, desperate to solve their cases, never leave and the criminals never leave except in a body bag or a prison bus. The detectives play the statistics games, fall under media scrutiny when 'red ball' high profile cases hit, and live and die by their clearance rates.

This book, undated and unflinching, is a startlingly brutal and honest voyage into the heart of the last bastion between the po'houses and the courthouses, the complete and utter unsympathetic life on the killing streets of Baltimore. This is more than a police procedural, it's full of heart and honesty and colourful characters on which television caricatures are built, as their lives are consumed by dead bodies and turning names from red to black and solving murders in one of the most violent and deadly cities in America. So recommended I might burst telling you again and again... Essential. Truly simply amazingly brilliant.

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